Monday, 11 April 2011

Himmel über Berlin

That, of course, is how the Germans know Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire, a film which so coloured my early trips to this ever-changing city. Funny how each return can be tinted, or tainted, by other second-hand impressions: this time I couldn't get away from the ruined horrors of 1945, courtesy of Fallada's Alone in Berlin and Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones. To be honest, you don't have to look far beneath the shiny surface for signs of those times. Even the winged Victory, whose perch was also shared by Wenders's angels, is poised atop a sandstone-and-granite column heightened and moved by Hitler from outside the Reichstag to form the centrepiece of his east-west axis.

I suppose every city has its dualities, in any case: on the very day I was cycling through our own central greenlands and wondering at the new-budding trees, a body was fished out of the Serpentine. Cue diversionary snapshot.

Last Tuesday the weather in Berlin was so mild, if not as brilliant-blue as the above proves it soon was in London, that I gave up on museums and exhibitions, including an Ingmar Bergman special I really shouldn't have missed, and decided to walk from my hotel near the Philharmonie to Schloss Charlottenburg. I had four hours between my genial late-breakfast interview with Andrew Litton and the journey back to Schonefeld Airport, and it turned out to be quite a hike, by no means all of it pretty. From the leafing trees and wild flowers of the Tiergarten's south side

I crossed a couple of the roads meeting at the Siegessäule and found myself in a less salubrious woodland around the Fauler See. We're talking midday, but this zone was full of stunted and deformed eastern cruisers who kept on dropping out of the ugly tree. The hassle was so, well, I'll be frankly prudish and say disturbing, that I walked the rest of the way up to the Charlottenburger Tor along the road. Now there's another ugly beast for you, built in 1905 for the 200th anniversary of enlightened Queen Sophie Charlotte

but considerably adapted by Hitler in 1937 to make way for his military parades. A long walk up Otto Suhr Allee past very indifferent 1960s building brought me to a more fascinating monstrosity, Charlottenburg's Rathaus - still very much in use, so you can wander the vast corridors and the library with the rest of the area's inhabitants. This colossal pile, built by Heinrich Reinhardt and Georg Süßenguth between 1899 and 1905, shows all too clearly what the belle epoque meant to Prussia. But I do like some of the bas reliefs, and the ironwork above the left entrance is impressive.

It makes Schloss Charlottenburg, albeit heavily restored after 1945, seem all the more elegant. I've been here before, to see the Caspar David Friedrichs as well as Nefertiti when she was housed in one of the smaller museums to the south, but I wanted to compare and contrast late 17th-early 18th century Charlottenburg in spring with mid-17th-century Versailles in winter (would have gone to Potsdam, into which Frederick the Great channelled his energies, had there been more time - that I have yet to see). The south facade includes gilt railings to match Versailles (first shot)

and handsome trees

though the space before it can't compare to Versailles. Toyed with the original plan of going round Berggruen's collection of Picassos and Klees, now housed across the Spandauer Damm, but lunch called, so I stopped at the cafe of the Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg, with its intriguing-looking collection of fantastic art from Piranesi and Goya through to Magritte and Dubuffet.

The weather was now overcast but fair, so the Schlossgarten needed exploring.

There's an intriguing mausoleum, built to a neoclassical design by Gentz as a tomb for Queen Luise between 1810 and 1812, extended by the great Schinkel after the death of Friedrich Wilhelm III - that's his effigy below; Luise's is a finer work of art, but by that stage I realised I wasn't supposed to be photographing.

Presumably further touches are part of the 1890–91 extension to accommodate the graves of Wilhelm I and his wife Augusta. At any rate, it's a hotchpotch of styles, but not without grace in some of the details.

There was just time for a quick wander of the park. Beyond the formal gardens - which I'm delighted to see were indeed inspired by Le Notre's Versailles - the looser English style takes over; in fact the whole park looked like this after 1787, but following war damage the baroque portions were restored. At any rate the lakes tie in well with the distant Belvedere

and the palace proper looks handsome across the waters.

I suppose I should have followed what my guidebook described as the 'beauty and the beast' itinerary and gone to see the memorial on the site of Plötzensee, the slaughterhouse of political prisoners between 1933 and 1945. But time was up, so I took a brief detour along the Spree, with willows and cherry trees framing enormous factory chimneys, past a functional newish Russian orthodox church

and a monumental piece of wall-art

back to the Rathaus, Richard Wagner-Platz

and the U-bahn back. There was just time before taking the train to the airport to pay homage to another grim memorial, this time opposite the hotel, to Stauffenberg and the members of the German resistance who tried to overthrow Hitler in the July plot of 1944.

It's inside the yard of the Bendlerblock, former Nazi army headquarters, where they've also erected the statue of a defiant, chained naked man, worthier than the flatulent inscription on the ground in front.

I'm guessing that even this building had to be reconstructed after 1945. It's astonishing to see a photograph of Scharoun's Philharmonie, newly constructed in 1964, surrounded by open space and only a handful of semi-ruined edifices. Couldn't find this image on the web, nor on the Philharmonie's website - for which I sought permission in reproductions below - so will have to hope this poor copy of my postcard will suffice.

I didn't have time to see the museum within the Bendlerblock, but it's worth quoting inscription on the banner which is one of the exhibits, highlighting Pastor Martin Niemöller's wise words:

When the Nazis came for the Communists, I said nothing, for I was not a Communist. When they locked up the Social Democrats, I said nothing, for I was no Social Democrat. When they came for the trade unionists, I said nothing, for I was not a trade unionist. When they came for the Jews, I said nothing, because I was not a Jew. When they came for me, there was no-one left to protest.

Now - he grandly proclaims - go away and read Hans Fallada's Alone in Berlin, and don't think of taking a jolly jaunt to Berlin until you've finished it.


David Damant said...

The Siegesaule used to stand in front of the Reichstag and the column then was one unit shorter. Hitler had it moved to its present position - and lengthened so that the proportions are much improved. I wonder if the future President Obama realised when he made his speech standing on the 1930s plinth on which the column now stands that his feet were on a construction designed by Adolf?

David said...

Yes, I wrote that, though you've clarified some interesting details...

Laurent said...

Berlin and Potsdam too cities that I always enjoy visiting.

David Damant said...

When I was in Berlin in 1960 there was indeed nothing in the old centre of Berlin except piles of rubble - in the Eastern Sector two restored buildings only: the opera house ( used for communist party meetings) and the Russian embassy half way down the Unter den Linden and still of course there ( with a plaque commemorating Prince Gorchakov which was not there in 1960 !)

It is interesting to note the early (1964) date of the building of the Philharmonie - showing the central and iconic significance accorded to music in Germany

I think that Stauffenberg was executed in the courtyard of the Bendlerstrasse building - hence the plaque etc there

The Siegesaule in 1960 had only one plaque, recording the great Prussian victory at Konigsgratz - which defeated Austria and excluded her for Germany, paving the way for the Franco-Prussian War and the unity of Germany. Hence one of the most important battles in history - had it gone the other way the history or at least the timing of history of the rest of the 19th and of the 20th centuries would have been different. The plaques recording the Prussian victories over France in the Franco-Prussian war had been removed from the Victory Column by the French in 1945 - now restored, I believe